M/cloudy
30°
M/cloudy
Hi 27° | Lo 8°

Accentuate the Positive: Bethel Educators Say a Behavior Program Has Made a Difference

  • First and second grade teacher Bethany Webb, left, redirected her class's energy into a group counting game as they got excited for lunch and recess at Bethel Elementary School Wednesday, March 19, 2014. The class, including Easton Barber, left, Lillianna Babcock, right, and Mackenzie Kill, back, counted by tens as a group and each time a student reached 100 they were excused to line up for lunch.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    First and second grade teacher Bethany Webb, left, redirected her class's energy into a group counting game as they got excited for lunch and recess at Bethel Elementary School Wednesday, March 19, 2014. The class, including Easton Barber, left, Lillianna Babcock, right, and Mackenzie Kill, back, counted by tens as a group and each time a student reached 100 they were excused to line up for lunch.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Julie Cleary, school counselor, chats with Asher Gray, 9, about how to deal with a stressful class.(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Julie Cleary, school counselor, chats with Asher Gray, 9, about how to deal with a stressful class.(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Second graders Ryan Bailey, front left, Kellan Ballou, front middle, and Dylan Slack, front right, compete over space in a library rocking chair while sitting down to read Wednesday, March 19, 2014. First graders Lillianna Babcock, back left, and Nevaeh Richards, back right, sit down to read quietly earning them each a "Buzz Buck" as rewards for following instructions. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Second graders Ryan Bailey, front left, Kellan Ballou, front middle, and Dylan Slack, front right, compete over space in a library rocking chair while sitting down to read Wednesday, March 19, 2014. First graders Lillianna Babcock, back left, and Nevaeh Richards, back right, sit down to read quietly earning them each a "Buzz Buck" as rewards for following instructions.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bethany Webb fills out a "Buzz Buck" for a student in her second grade math class at Bethel Elementary School Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Teachers at the school reinforce positive behavior by distributing the slips to students then rewarding them with drawings for healthy snacks, prizes and class parties. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Bethany Webb fills out a "Buzz Buck" for a student in her second grade math class at Bethel Elementary School Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Teachers at the school reinforce positive behavior by distributing the slips to students then rewarding them with drawings for healthy snacks, prizes and class parties.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • First and second grade teacher Bethany Webb, left, redirected her class's energy into a group counting game as they got excited for lunch and recess at Bethel Elementary School Wednesday, March 19, 2014. The class, including Easton Barber, left, Lillianna Babcock, right, and Mackenzie Kill, back, counted by tens as a group and each time a student reached 100 they were excused to line up for lunch.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Julie Cleary, school counselor, chats with Asher Gray, 9, about how to deal with a stressful class.(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Second graders Ryan Bailey, front left, Kellan Ballou, front middle, and Dylan Slack, front right, compete over space in a library rocking chair while sitting down to read Wednesday, March 19, 2014. First graders Lillianna Babcock, back left, and Nevaeh Richards, back right, sit down to read quietly earning them each a "Buzz Buck" as rewards for following instructions. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Bethany Webb fills out a "Buzz Buck" for a student in her second grade math class at Bethel Elementary School Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Teachers at the school reinforce positive behavior by distributing the slips to students then rewarding them with drawings for healthy snacks, prizes and class parties. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

As Bethel Elementary School teacher Karol Delia walked among her fifth- and sixth-grade class in the school’s computer lab, she carried a small pad of yellow paper .

The yellow pad isn’t for making notes. Each page bears a triangle inscribed with the three words central to the school’s code of conduct: Responsible, respectful, safe.

Each page is a “Buzz Buck,” the currency of the pre-K-12 school’s system of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, a comprehensive program of behavior instruction that Bethel school officials have implemented over the past four years.

True to its name, PBIS offers a method of behavior management that focuses on the positive. When Lilly Watters-Bump, 12 and a usually shy student, spoke up in class, Delia wrote out a Buzz Buck and as she was handing it to her told her it was for voicing her thoughts.

“For that student, sometimes that’s above and beyond their comfort zone,” Delia said. The Buzz Bucks in the elementary school and “Hornet Miles” handed out in grades seven to 12 are rewards for instances of good behavior and can lead to prize drawings or special meals with classmates.

Bethel teachers, administrators and students credit PBIS with dramatically improving the culture of their school. In Vermont, about 40 percent of public schools have adopted PBIS since 2007, a sign both of the need for instruction in proper conduct, and of how behavior influences classroom performance. The program is used less widely in New Hampshire, where there is less support for it from state education officials .

“When I came in, one thing we noticed, there were some, I don’t know if I would call it climate issues, there was some negativity,” said Kevin Dirth, principal of Bethel schools. The school had gone through a difficult period financially and enrollment was down slightly.

The solution PBIS promises is a school-wide approach to discipline. What most people remember of school discipline is that misbehavior is punished with detentions or demerits, or in extreme cases, suspension from school.

With its focus on negative behaviors that range from inattention to bullying, what the traditional method misses is a more active approach to teaching discipline as a value that all students need to absorb. Under PBIS, discipline is treated like an academic subject, said David Amidon, a student support coordinator at Bethel schools.

“When a student fails a spelling test, we don’t punish them,” he said. “It’s got to be instructional. We’ve got to be teaching them exactly the behavior we want to see.”

Not all schools implement it in exactly the same way, but in Bethel PBIS works like this:

The first step is to affirm a set of consistent expectations and to make it a school-wide project. Bethel teachers began attending training in PBIS six or seven years ago. “It’s really about retraining the people who work here,” said Andra Bowen, assistant principal and a 14-year-veteran of Bethel schools. Everyone is included, from the principal to the bus drivers.

The PBIS model is called a multi-tiered system of support. The bottom tier (it helps to imagine the bottom of a pyramid) comprises the 80 percent of students who respond to “universal intervention.” In Bethel’s case, that consists of assemblies that reinforce the core expectations of “responsibility, respect, safety” and the use of Buzz Bucks to encourage such positive behaviors as picking up papers off the floor or holding a door for someone. The school also holds community-building exercises, partly as a reward for good behavior, including a “books and bagels” event, where high school students and elementary school children took turns reading picture books to each other. The whole school sat on blankets spread out in the gym to read books and eat bagels.

After starting with the universal tier, which covers the entire school population , a school proceeds to the next level, the 15 percent of students who need targeted intervention, children who generally have two to five disciplinary referrals in a given year. Children in that group are surrounded with a wider range of supports. They have an adviser with whom they check in and check out each day. Younger children might be paired with older ones in a mentoring relationship.

Eric Mann, a consultant with the Bedford, N.H.-based Southeastern Regional Education Service Center who helped train schools to use PBIS in New Hampshire, likened it to a public health approach to school behavior. Like a smoking cessation campaign, PBIS is broad-based, but also offers more specific programs and intensive treatment for people already sickened by a lifetime of smoking.

The school is also arranged to support students. Every teacher has a buddy teacher that students who are struggling with a behavior issue can visit with. That time out is often taken up filling out a “think sheet,” a set of questions that asks a student what went wrong and how he or she could have handled it differently. If a student hasn’t learned to write, he or she is encouraged to draw a picture of the incident of bad behavior.

Bethel staff have trained for the targeted intervention tier, but not for the intensive intervention tier, the 5 percent or so of students who have six or more disciplinary referrals and who often exhibit the most difficult or dangerous behaviors. That’s the next step for Bethel, which was recently recognized as an “exemplar” PBIS school by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

“Whatever works, it all boils down to relationships,” Bowen said. Students feel connected to their school counselors and to their teachers.

This has led them to take ownership of their behavior, said Julie Cleary, guidance counselor for the elementary grades and the PBIS coordinator.

School officials compile data on disciplinary referrals and can compare them from year to year, days of the week, time of day, location in the school and other factors that allow them to target their interventions. If the data shows that more disciplinary problems crop up in the halls or in the cafeteria, school staff can reteach the core expectations and models of behavior in those places, something that’s also done at the start of the school year.

Recently, the data showed more discipline problems on the playground. School staff set a challenge for students — improved behavior at recess would lead to a day with extra recess and some fun outdoor activities. When the day came, school staff filled spray bottles with water and food coloring to allow children to paint on the snowbanks around the school, Cleary said.

The data collection shows Bethel is making progress in fostering better behavior, with 83 percent of its students receiving zero or one disciplinary referrals a year and only 11 percent in the targeted intervention tier.

“I think for some students it’s made them think rather than react,” said Sandra Barry, a science teacher at Bethel’s Whitcomb High School. “I think it will be a really good trait that they’ll carry out of school,” she added.

Bethel staff are also trying to connect the PBIS code of conduct to the community. A program to help families is under way, and school officials hope to develop some community rewards for high school students, for example, lunch at Bethel’s Cockadoodle Pizza.

The program isn’t perfect. PBIS seems to work better in the elementary grades than for high school students, who are less susceptible to the excitement of recognition and prizes, said Janet Brown, a longtime administrative assistant at the school.

“A lot of our high school kids are wondering, ‘Why am I getting rewarded for expected behavior,’ ” said Deb Coffey, an assistant librarian at the school.

But bringing the whole school together reminds the high school students that they are looked up to by younger kids. “They kind of innately know they’re supposed to be models,” Dirth said.

Only 19 schools in the Upper Valley (12 in Vermont and seven in New Hampshire) have had some experience with PBIS. Claremont’s three elementary schools and middle school implemented it more than a decade ago. Last year, Claremont’s school budget included $200,000 to hire additional personnel to address behavior issues.

It appears to be here to stay in Bethel.

Catie Covell, president of Whitcomb’s student council, said the system of rewards and the clear expectations for students have changed the school for the better.

“Seeing this implemented, it just changed the way people see their behavior,” she said. “If you do something nice, you think it’s going to come back to you.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.